Sometimes I think I would have done well living under communism. Go to the supermarket: one type of jam. Buy it or don’t buy it, that’s all there is to it. In reality, some of my bleakest existential moments have been in the supermarket, wandering vaguely around the Tesco superstore in Kennington, pondering the meaning of existence and wondering whether I’m a failure because I don’t know what type of tortilla wraps I want to buy.
Clearly, a life under communism where you would struggle to find enough food would actually not be any fun whatsoever, but decision making anxiety is a real struggle. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt overwhelmed by choice and ended up making the choice to buy nothing, do nothing, read nothing. You could argue that this is good – I’m reducing my consumption! Saving the planet! Being healthier! But there comes a point where it gets ridiculous.
I lived in a flat in Catford for two and a half years without buying curtains, because I couldn’t decide what type of curtains adequately expressed my personality. I went a month with broken glasses because I couldn’t decide which glasses to buy. I’ve never owned anything expensive or quality because the idea of spending all my money on one thing and not hedging my bets by buying several crappy cheap things freaks me out too much. Every pair of shoes I own is a variation on a theme because I need to stick with what I know in case the decision is wrong. I don’t buy books for my Kindle anymore because there are too many books on Amazon and I can’t decide.
This reached a point of ridiculousness when I was trying to buy a pair of trainers for the gym four years ago. I needed proper gym shoes – not sexy, cool or interesting shoes, gym shoes. But there were too many brands and I couldn’t decide. So I spent the entire six months I went to that gym wearing a pair of converse plimsolls I’d been given for my twentieth birthday. It was insane, it was wrecking my feet.
And that’s when I came up with the arbitrary rules scheme. It works a treat. You impose a set of arbitrary rules on your decision-making processes… and that’s basically it. You don’t even have to stick to it. Just having the rule helps focus your mind. For example, in the case of the shoes, I walked into the shop and picked up the first pair I liked the look of, which happened to be a pair of Nikes. I decided that I would only look at Nikes. I tried on all the ones in my size and voila, ended up with an ugly, comfy pair of gym shoes. Every time I need new trainers, I only look at the Nikes. I have no particular affinity to the brand, but just picking a brand, any brand, helps get the choice of shoes down to a manageable size.
The rules don’t have to stay the same either. Take reading. I love books, but I get really overwhelmed trying to pick new ones to read. There are just so many, and they’re expensive, and I don’t get much time to read what I want. So I make up a rule. They’re completely arbitrary, but they help focus you down to one section. From Christmas to my birthday in June, I only read American authors. From my birthday until Christmas, I’m only reading non-fiction by female authors. After Christmas, I’ll make up a new rule. It just gets me over the hump of trying to pick something.
Remember I said earlier you didn’t even have to stick to the rule? Well that’s the other beauty of it – I made the rule because I get so overwhelmed by choice that I can’t work out what I like. Having the rule gives my brain something to stick to, so when I see a fiction book by a male, English author that I really want to read, if I want to read it enough to break the rule then I know I really want it. The trainers are the same – after a few pairs of Nikes, it’s become obvious that what I really like are black trainers with not much colour or pattern. So maybe next time I need some new ones, I’ll change the rule to “only black trainers”.
Maybe you’re thinking I’m crazy, maybe you’ve never felt anxious about decisions. If so, good for you. I’m a little bit jealous. Maybe you’re thinking that this is a first-world problem, and maybe you’re right. But I had this problem even when I was a student and living on £10 a week, and it made things really difficult. Maybe I’m totally mad and this rule only works for me, but if you find making decisions can be hard, especially if you’re stressed in other aspects of your life, give it a try! I heard Barack Obama only ever wears grey or blue suits so he never has to make a decision about his clothes. I take comfort in knowing that even the rich and powerful sometimes just find small decisions too much.